Web Writing Guidelines
Users visit web pages for an average of 10 to 15 seconds, and in that brief time, most skim the page for keywords that they already have in mind. Therefore, before you begin writing web content, it's important to understand your audience, anticipate what content they are seeking, and provide them with the keywords they need to find that content.
Adhering to the following guidelines will strengthen your content and improve user experience:
- Be succinct. If there's a shorter, simpler way to say something, say it that way. What you take out of the text is as important as what you leave in.
- Lead with your main point. Key facts and important information should be at the beginning of a page or section. Then elaborate.
- Write clear, direct headlines. The web is an attention-competitive environment. Direct headlines improve search engine optimization and help users find what they want.
- Headlines should be able to stand on their own or be understood out of context.
- In general, it is more important for headlines to be clear rather than catchy.
- Make text easy to scan. Web users scan pages for useful information, and if they don't find what they're looking for, they'll go somewhere else.
- Create identifiable "chunks" of content by using bulleted lists, heads, and subheads to facilitate scanning of onscreen copy.
- Keep paragraphs short. This—especially if paragraphs have topic sentences—speeds scanning and alleviates fatigue.
- Use tables, numbers, and charts to convey information visually when you can.
- Use anchors on long pages. An anchor is a link that points to a specific location within a page.
- Example: if a term listed at the top of a page is explained farther down on the page, you can use an anchor to link the term at the top to the location on the page with the explanation.
- Provide relevant links. The use of links (also known as hypertext) is a major difference between writing for the web and writing for print publications. If your content doesn't have links, it's not web text.
- Identify related content online, and include links to those web pages. Guide users to information that will enrich their knowledge, understanding, or enjoyment of your site.
- Use exact language. The name on a link should accurately describe the link's destination. This improves both user experience and search engine optimization.
- Example: A link to "Undergraduate Admissions" should take you to the "Undergraduate Admissions" page, not "Forms" or "Undergraduates."
Users know what a hyperlink is and what it will do without being told to click. Using terms like "click here" can be counterproductive. For example, various screen readers activate a link. And on mobile devices users tap, not click.
- Example: "Their previous research on the subject proved that . . . "
NOT: "Click here to read about their previous research."
- Search Engine Optimization. Help users find your content by increasing the odds that your site will rank high among search results.
- Make sure that keywords appear at the top of the page. Search engines seem to rank words more highly when they are higher up on a page—particularly the words in titles and headlines, the first 25 words of your content, and any hyperlinked text.
- The name of a link should match the name of the page it links to.
- Create a hierarchy with different levels of information. The most general level should be on the top of your hierarchy: it answers the most basic questions. The most detailed information is at the bottom of the hierarchy. This hierarchy speeds reading: users looking for the gist get it right away; users looking for details, will be willing to click downward through links. This allows you to create web-like structures of information that reverberate with connections and ideas.
- Use second-person language when possible and appropriate. Talk to your users. "You" is the most powerful word on the web.
- General guidelines for length:
- headings: 4–8 words
- sentences: 1–20 words
- paragraphs: 1–7 sentences
- primary landing pages: 150-250 words
- secondary and tertiary pages: 250-350 (the deeper into the site you go, the longer your content can get)
- Use a style guide. Refer to Caltech's Identity Standards and the Chicago Manual of Style.